After 65 years of investigations, the Philadelphia Police Department has finally identified “America’s Unknown Child,” commonly referred to as the “Boy in the Box”.
On Thursday, December 8th, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw revealed the name of the boy as, Joseph Augustus Zarelli who was born January 13, 1953 and died in 1957.
According to the Philadelphia Public Affairs Office, “on February 25, 1957, the body of a young boy was discovered in a box in a wood area of Susquehanna Road in Northeast Philadelphia. Despite numerous attempts to identify the child throughout the years, the identity of the boy remained a mystery. Through detective work and DNA analysis, police are finally able to identify the child.”
In 1957, Police Officer Elmer Palmer was called to Susquehanna Road near Veree Road, where someone found a naked, badly bruised boy wrapped in a multi-colored blanket and placed inside a large inside a cardboard box.
The boy was taken to the Philadelphia Medical Examiners office, where they examined him. The boy was determined the child to be about 4 to 6 years old. The child had blue eyes, brown hair that was “crudely cut” close to the scalp, badly trimmed fingernails, and he was measured to be 40 ½ inches tall and weighed only 30 pounds. Bruises were visible on the child’s body and an autopsy revealed the child sustained “multiple abrasions, contusions, a subdural hemorrhage, and plural effusions”, said Philadelphia Police Captain Jason Smith.
Investigators made posters displaying the child’s face and plastered them all over grocery stores, lampposts and knocked on neighbors doors trying to figure out the identity of the unknown child.
The flier included details such as: light- to medium-brown hair, a full set of baby teeth, tonsils, no broken bones, clothing size 4, shoe size 8D.
Over the past 6 decades, detectives pursued and discarded thousands of leads.
The case was heard around the world but no significant updates were ever made until now, all thanks to a boom in technology.
Modern forensic techniques including genealogical DNA testing were applied. DNA results were uploaded to DNA databases and genealogical experts interpreted the results. Based on the interpretation of the results, detectives were able to locate and contact possible relatives of the child’s family on the maternal side. Further investigations into this case were able to establish of the birth mother of Joseph, whose identity was not revealed.
A court order signed by a court of common pleas judge to obtain birth records, death records, and adoption records for all children born to the established birth mother, revealed Joseph has multiple living siblings on both the mothers and fathers side.
The order revealed a birth certificate for a male child born in 1953, which is consistent with the approximated age of the child.
The birth father was listed on the certificate, but his identity was not revealed.
Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifiers International, says this case took two and half years to make the DNA useable for genealogy, and is the most difficult case of her whole career.
On October 30, 1998 a court order was obtained to have the child’s remains exhumed and Joseph was given a proper burial at Ivy Hill Cemetery. In 2015, a charcoal-gray headstone was placed engraved with the words, “America’s Unknown Child” and depicted an image of a little lamb.
The Philadelphia Police department urges everyone to remember although the identity of Joseph has been revealed, this is still an ongoing homicide investigation.
Authorities urge anyone with information pertaining to this incident to call 215-686-TIPS. The Philadelphia Police Department is offering a $20,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
This story is developing and will be updated.